Hyacinth opened on Grand Avenue in St. Paul last autumn and quickly made a name for itself. This was partly/largely—depending on your point of view—because the owner/executive chef had previously worked in the kitchens at Corton and Franny’s in New York. Twin Cities food writers, you see, manage to both scoff at coastal inattention to/disdain for our local fine dining scene and fall over themselves with excitement when a chef from New York comes (back) to town or a local chef goes on to great success in San Francisco. Such are the contradictions of being a food critic in a third-tier food town.
Anyway, Hyacinth also received strong reviews from friends who ate there not long after it opened and I had been looking forward to eating there for a while. But the end of the year was too crowded and January was spent decompressing from hectic travel. However, it seemed like the perfect spot for my birthday dinner at the end of February. And then we were hit by a blizzard that weekend… Hyacinth couldn’t accommodate our large group the following weekend and so my make-up birthday dinner was at fellow-late 2018 opening, In Bloom. I did manage to make a reservation for this past weekend though. We went with another couple we’ve eaten out with before (at Corner Table, Spoon and Stable and Piccolo). We all liked our meal a fair bit but, on the whole, I was glad my birthday dinner had ended up being at In Bloom.
Though it may come across otherwise, I don’t mean this as a knock on Hyacinth. It’s just that In Bloom is more of an occasion restaurant in terms of both aesthetic (big, dramatic) and cuisine (big, dramatic). Hyacinth, on the other hand, is more of a neighbourhood gem in feel. I knew it was a small space—only 40 seats—but it was smaller and felt more cramped than I’d expected. Our birthday party of eight would have been right on top of other people and a little mushed together (even our table for four wasn’t the most expansive). Plus, seated as we were at the table closest to the entrance, we kept getting hit with cold blasts of air every time someone went in or out.
And while the food is quite a few cuts above the average neighbourhood Italian restaurant in the Twin Cities, it’s not going for fireworks either: the menu is small and works the genre of what you might call elevated comfort food. Think penne all’arrabbiata but with high quality mezze maniche in place of penne and a lot of very good cheese over the tomato sauce. No wheels are being reinvented here; they’re just putting out solid food at a high level. Most nights that would be grand; but for a special occasion you might want something more.
So, what did we eat? We shared a couple of starters, pastas and sides and got a main each. Portions being very midwestern we only had room at the end for one dessert between the four of us. Details follow:
- SALUMI prosciutto, sopprassata (sic), coppa. All of a very high standard; the prosciutto was particularly good. We didn’t get the provenance of any of these and were too busy chatting to ask. Served with garlicky toast.
- CHICKEN LIVER MOUSSE CROSTINI balsamic vinegar, polenta crumble, brioche. Just excellent. The mousse was applied with a light touch and set of perfectly in terms of flavour by the vinegar and in terms of texture by the polenta crumble.
All the pastas in this section can be ordered as small or large portions. We got two smaller orders to share.
- MEZZE MANICHE all’Arrabbiata. As described above. The pasta was perfectly al dente and the sauce was as good as it was classic.
- BUCATINI salt cod, saffron, pine nuts, golden raisins, capers. Perfectly cooked pasta again but I can’t say the components beyond the salt cod made very much of an impression. This was good as a shared middle course but I don’t think I would have wanted a full order of this. The missus, on the other hand, really liked it.
There were four mains on offer and we got one of each (and stole bites off each other’s plates).
- RISOTTO AL SALTO fall squash, fontina val d’aosta. This was mine and it was okay. Well, it was good but we all agreed that it would have worked better as a shared side than as a main for one person. It got a bit much working through most of it on my own. (By the way, I’m not sure if Rick Nelson at the Strib knows that risotto al salto is a thing; in his review he gives the impression that he thinks that the chef de cuisine at Hyacinth came up with the idea of frying leftover risotto to a crisp.)
- FRIED POLENTA lamb shank ragu, roasted root vegetables, mozzarella. This likewise did not rock the boat of the person who ate most of it. Taking a bite, I could see why. The polenta was a bit too cheese-forward and the lamb ragu was a little blah. Solid but unremarkable.
- ROASTED SPANISH MACKEREL chickpea and herb salad, radishes, fennel. This, however, was very good. Perfectly roasted fish alongside a very well composed salad. Would eat again.
- ROASTED CHICKEN FRA DIAVOLO roasted cabbage, bagna cauda, dried tomato butter. But as it happens, the most cliched-sounding dish on the menu was the absolute standout of this round: the chicken was perfectly roasted as well and everything on the plate worked very well. Not a very attractive presentation though.
- FARINATA rosemary, roasted garlic. Usually a sort of chickpea flour pancake, here it is done more like flatbread. Very nice.
- FRIED POTATOES calabrian chili mayonnaise. I ordered this on a lark as one of the party was expressing dubiety about the calabrian chilli mayo and it turned out to be, again, solid but unremarkable. The potatoes were fried nicely but the mayo made no impact. More to the point it was a bit of a non-sequitur alongside the dishes currently on the menu.
We washed all this down with a bottle of a Sicilian red, the Tami Frappato 2016. It was a good all-rounder and went well with most everything we had.
As noted, we were too full to try more than one of their three desserts.
- VANILLA PANNA COTTA late harvest apple cider vinegar. This divided the group a little. We all thought the panna cotta was excellent but not everyone liked the apple cider vinegar on top. Me, I thought it was grand.
For a look at the food and the space, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on service, value and the overall experience.
Service was friendly but not always very smooth. We had a short wait for our table and a young server came up and offered us—and the other group waiting—aperitifs on the house. This was a nice gesture but they then took forever to actually give them to us. I realize I seem petty complaining about the slow delivery of a comped drink but they only showed up right before our table was ready. Our lead server was more on the ball and we appreciated the small tasting pours of wine she gave us as we were trying to decide between two bottles. She was not, however, herself very helpful on the subject. It’s a small wine list; it might not be a bad idea to train the staff a little more on how to describe what’s on it.
And speaking of the wine list, while markups for bottles seem pretty reasonable (about 300% as far as I can make out), the markups on wines by the glass is pretty steep. They offer wine by the half glass, glass or bottle and the cheapest glass of red is $14 (for a bottle at $48). This is a higher mark-up than at the altogether more expensive Grand Cafe or, for that matter, Alma. Prices for the food, however, are altogether more reasonable, with mains between $22 and $28 and antipasti between $8 and $16. And these prices are inclusive of service charge. Indeed, for all the food and wine and coffee we had the total, inclusive of tax, was $260 or $65/head. That’s pretty good value in the overall scheme of things.
Quibbles about service, wine-pricing etc. aside, I would recommend Hyacinth. If we lived within easy reach we’d probably eat there often. However, I can’t quite see us wanting to get a sitter and drive 50 minutes each way to eat there very often. Your mileage may literally differ. It’s also the case that their menu is very seasonally driven and that late winter/early spring in Minnesota may not be the best time to take their measure. Perhaps we’ll go back again in the late summer or fall and see what we make of it then. In the meantime, if you’ve been as well I’d love to hear what your experience was like.
Apologies to anyone who might feel insulted by my referring to the Twin Cities as “a third-tier food town”. Not meant as a put-down, just as a statement of fact (and it might be a bit generous). In case you’re wondering, here’s how I’d arrange the tiers in with an emphasis on fine dining (based on my own experience and that of others I trust):
First tier: New York, San Francisco/Bay Area.
Second tier: Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington DC.
Third Tier: Philadelphia, Atlanta, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Austin, Denver, Portland, Twin Cities.
If you don’t emphasize fine dining then Los Angeles and San Francisco swap places. And if you break the third tier into two tiers I’d probably put the Twin Cities in the fourth tier. We have some very good fine dining restaurants here but not very many that could make a claim on being in the upper echelon of the top two tiers.
No apologies necessary! You’re absolutely right. I moved here from the Bay Area, 25 years there, and went back and forth with one of the local magazine editors about their restaurant reviews, and why they wouldn’t rate the places they reviewed with some kind of star system. “Oh, we don’t want to ruffle any feathers” was basically what they told me.
That’s when I knew there was something wrong with the local food press here. (As you’ve rightfully pointed out many times.)
When did the Strib start giving stars?
It was I think Mpls./St. Paul Mag., back in 2005 or so I was corresponding with. They still don’t give stars as far as I can tell. They also don’t provide noise levels.
Yeah, MSP Mag really seems to take the role of town booster seriously. This was a recent entry in the genre from them:
I guess they don’t just want to not ruffle feathers, they also want people to feel really good about the scene.